After years of public concern regarding the safety of children on social media platforms, today there is bipartisan congressional support for multiple pieces of legislation that would shift more of the burden and liability of keeping minors safe online to the social media platforms. These laws would mandate that social media companies implement more means of parental control and monitoring, as well as increasing data collection and reporting requirements. These bills bring with them the potential for significantly increased compliance costs, as well as serious privacy concerns.
The most recently advertised bill seeking to protect minors on social media, the Let Parents Choose Protection Act, or “Sammy’s Law,” was announced by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) earlier this month. The bill joins two other pieces of legislation introduced earlier this year whose proponents point to the prevention of drug dealing over social media platforms as a key impetus for the push for further regulation. While the text of this bill is not yet public, announcements by Rep. Wasserman Schultz’s office advertise that increased transparency and parental access to children’s activity on social medias platform are a fundamental part of their future proposal.
The first proposed legislation of this type to gain congressional traction this year was the Kids Online Safety Act. It was introduced to the Senate on February 16, sponsored by Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn). The Act seeks to create safeguards requiring that when a social media platform knows or reasonable suspects a user to be a minor, the highest level of safeguard options must be applied by default, and that parents must be notified of their child’s registration on the platform. The Senate bill also targets the way content is served to minors. any social media platform that employs an algorithmic recommendation system would need to provide an easily understood overview of how that system works, and offer users options to modify those recommendations.
Similar to Sammy’s Law, increased transparency is a key component of the Kids Online Safety Act. The Act would mandate a yearly audit and public report “identifying the foreseeable risks of harm to minors based on an independent, third-party audit[.]” As currently drafted, the Kids Online Safety Act would be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and State Attorneys General. Additionally, it would command the Secretary of Commerce to establish the Kids Online Safety Council within a year of enactment of the Act to provide advice on its implementation.
This July, the House of Representatives introduced its own social media transparency and reporting legislation, the Combating Harmful Actions with Transparency on Social, or “CHATS” Act, Sponsored by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.). This legislation creates a system and mandate for the FBI to collect and report on crimes committed on social media networks. Similarly, the CHATS Act directs the Attorney General “to modify the uniform crime reporting program to include data on internet platforms used in connection with criminal offenses.” The CHATS Act also prioritizes national security concerns regarding the exportation of potentially sensitive personal data to foreign governments. Gottheimer made clear in an interview that the central goal of the CHATS Act is to enable a crackdown on drug crimes that victimize children.
Groups opposed to the kind of privacy and transparency legislation introduced this year, including the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), state that monitoring minors’ online activity can lead to serious safety and privacy concerns, along with the chance for increased conflict between children and parents who disapprove of their online behavior, for example, by “outing” the sexual orientation of children to their parents. Along with politicians including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the CDT has issued warnings that the increase in monitoring of children’s online activity through the use of surveillance applications and programs by parents and teachers results in negative impacts to children’s mental health. There is also no practical explanation from proponents of these laws how social media platforms could successfully monitor posts for illegal activity, or how social media companies should navigate the liability created when they become aware of specific instances of unlawful activity on their platforms.
The strong push from both sides of the political aisle to shift responsibility for children’s safety onto social media companies makes monitoring the evolution of these bills of paramount importance to their businesses. Social media companies would be wise to contemplate what kinds of compliance protocols and engineering efforts would be necessary to maintain the profitable functioning of their platforms. It may not be long until they are asked to create means of access for users’ parents and the government to monitor minors’ activity and the activity of online criminals who would prey on children.